RegulationsThe difference between hemp & marijuana, explained

The difference between hemp & marijuana, explained


There seems to be a lot of confusion on what separates hemp from CBD and marijuana. Unfortunately, prominent online platforms have attempted to explain the difference between what many people think are different plants, only to exacerbate public misunderstanding of the cannabis plant further. So, here are the facts. 

What is the difference between hemp vs. CBD? 

If you’re trying to understand the chemical profile or species identification of hemp, CBD (cannabidiol) is the wrong thing to compare it to. Why? CBD is a chemical compound within the hemp plant, which is why you’ll often hear it referred to as “hemp-derived CBD.”

It is not another plant that holds any similarities or differences, thereby meriting some sort of comparison. You might be surprised to learn that CBD is also present in marijuana, which is a plant you can compare to hemp. 

Marijuana is another form of the cannabis plant. Its legal definition hinges on the fact that it has more than 0.3% of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), another chemical compound this species is known for. As you might already know, THC is the cannabinoid (chemicals unique to Cannabis species) responsible for the psychoactive effects that the plant is known for. 

(This legality applies to delta-9 THC, specifically. Another form of the compound has recently gained traction in popular culture, known as delta-8 THC. This is currently legal to buy and sell on the market, much like cannabis products containing mostly hemp-derived CBD.)

So, now that those basic definitions are out of the way, you’re ready to learn a bit more about what exactly distinguishes hemp from marijuana, two of the most well-known plants in the world. 

Hemp’s true identity: Cannabis sativa

There are a few different species within the Cannabis genus, one of which is Cannabis sativa, also known by its common name, “hemp.” There is a lot of disagreement on the specific taxonomic classification within the Cannabis family (in other words, its precise location on the Cannabis family tree); however, this is where it currently stands. Other species in the Cannabis genus include:

  • C. indica
  • C. ruderalis

No one really knows where hemp came from. Because it has been cultivated all over the world for so long, its native region is hard to pin down. Yet, historians and archaeologists agree that it likely originated from central Asia, where it evolved in a temperate climate. Specifically, it may have come from the geographic region between the Caspian Sea and Lake Baikal. 

Other scholars have speculated that its roots (pun intended) rest in the following places:

  • Altai Mountains
  • Southern Tien Shan Mountains
  • Himalayas
  • Yangtze and Yellow Rivers

Many of the differences in these speculations are driven by the researchers’ home regions and the ambiguity of hemp’s global distribution timeline mentioned earlier. 

Interestingly, researchers also agree that this plant was of critical importance to the development of human agriculture. Hemp was one of the first non-food crops that humans cultivated, signaling our knowledge of the plant’s medicinal, recreational, and practical applications, even at that time. Additionally, its emergence as a cultivated crop took place in numerous places worldwide. 

Hemp’s historical applications

Historian Nikolai Vavilov reported that the domestication of the hemp plant began in numerous locations across northeast Asia, beginning as far back as six millennia ago. From there, it traveled west and south, and the rest is history. People all throughout the world adopted varying applications of the prized plant, including:

  • Deriving fiber to produce ropes and sails
  • Creating recreational drugs, one of the most popular being “hashish” (an Arabian term meaning “dried herb of pleasure”) 
  • Creating medicinal drugs, most notably in Chinese herbal medicine
  • Making paper (the oldest piece of paper ever recorded, dated 140-87 BCE, is suspected of having been found in a tomb located in China’s Shaanxi Province)

Though historical records largely reflect this as hemp’s history, C. ruderalis and C. indica were not excluded from cannabis’ historical distributions throughout the world. 

Social and commercial appreciation for everything the cannabis plant could offer – including its intoxicating, calming, and pain-relieving effects – was more prevalent in times past. Now that the herb is so heavily stigmatized, THC-rich cannabis is difficult to study, which may have played into its erasure in retrospective language. 

Another reason why today’s “marijuana” (a name later given to the plant due to social and political tensions targeting Mexican immigrants, discussed later) may be unrecognizable in history is that it didn’t naturally occur with the sky-high THC concentrations we’re so accustomed to today. 

Higher THC levels have been artificially selected over time, now averaging at about 19.3% THC in medicinal industries and 21.5% in the recreational market. This is significantly higher than its natural concentrations, which normally range between 0.5-4% THC dry weight, with female plants falling toward the latter end. The continuous increase in the psychoactive cannabinoid enhances the plant’s effects, described below. 

Marijuana and hemp: The difference in chemical effects

One of the biggest distinctions between marijuana and hemp that most people understand is the concentration of CBD vs. THC. This difference is incredibly important because the former does not impose the same psychoactive effects as the latter. 

The contrast in cognitive effects lies at the crux of political interest and hostility surrounding the whole of cannabis’ existence. Yet, every cannabinoid interacts with a physiological system known as the “endocannabinoid system” (ECS), or more officially, the “endogenous cannabinoid system.” 

When you consume cannabis – whether that be orally or topically – the cannabinoids behave differently when in contact with the ECS. This system is full of the following receptors and compounds:

  • Cannabinoid receptors
  • Endocannabinoids
  • Enzymes that create and break down endocannabinoids

The most prominent receptor is CB1, followed closely in importance by CB2. The cannabinoids also interact with other physiological components, like transient receptor potential (TRP) channels, which are proteins in cell membranes that play a part in many sensory functions, and other types of receptors. 

The cannabinoids that come from the plant itself are known as exogenous cannabinoids. They can only produce psychoactive effects when they interact with the endogenous cannabinoids. There are roughly 540 chemical compounds within the cannabis plant, with over 60 of them being different types of cannabinoids. THC and CBD are among the most well-known. 

When delta-9 THC – the main active cannabinoid in marijuana – enters the body, it binds to sites in the brain, mainly to CB1 receptors, since this is where they’re mostly located. They’re also found in the following areas:

  • Peripheral nervous system
  • Liver
  • Thyroid
  • Uterus
  • Bones
  • Testicular tissue

On the other hand, CB2 receptors are mostly found in immune cells. They’re also in the spleen, gastrointestinal system, and central and peripheral nervous systems. 

What happens when THC interacts with the endocannabinoid system? 

When THC interacts with CB1s and CB2s, it changes the way the body regulates neurotransmitter release. (Neurotransmitters are known as the “chemical messengers in the body.” They transport messages between nerve cells.) Some experts also believe that it boosts the release of certain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, which is responsible for several bodily and cognitive functions like:

  • Movement 
  • Motivation
  • Emotions
  • Experience of pleasure

THC is also thought to increase the release of other neurotransmitters, including glutamate, what you might know best by the name MSG or monosodium glutamate. (Relax, this doesn’t mean that THC has MSG in it or that it causes your body to make MSG.) In its natural form, in your body, particularly in your brain, glutamate is responsible for exciting nerve cells. 

Interactions between THC and ECS receptors also trigger increased release of the first neurotransmitter to ever be discovered, acetylcholine. It was first called “vagus stuff” by the pharmacologist Otto Loewi. Acetylcholine earned its namesake from its ability to “mimic” the vagus nerve’s electrical stimulation. (The vagus nerve manages the functionality of internal organ functions.) Evidence shows that acetylcholine may enhance cognitive processes like learning and memory. 

In addition to all these effects, THC also creates the famous “high” feeling that marijuana is mainly associated with. Unfortunately, political leaders tend to focus only on this factor, claiming that it is dangerous and addictive. This, and frankly, racism toward Mexican immigrants following the 1910 Mexican Revolution led to the stigmatization of marijuana. 

The funny thing about this is that there is so much known about THC’s pathway in the ECS. Yet, the “mechanism of action for CBD is not yet clear.” This is because CBD doesn’t bind with CB1s or CB2s at all. 

Effects of consuming CBD

Although knowledge of CBD’s physiological pathway in the body is lacking, scientific findings consistently show that it offers numerous advantageous effects for mental health, immunity, pain management, and more. Hemp-derived CBD products have been touted as a much more strongly preferable alternative to many prescription medications as a solution to numerous health problems. 

This is because it boasts a “better side effect profile,” meaning it has fewer adverse effects than most medicines. This, and the fact that hemp-derived CBD is “nonintoxicating” when compared to THC, is why hemp has been better received by the scientific and medical communities than marijuana. 

As mentioned above, hemp tends to have more of the cannabinoid CBD than THC. Legally, it can’t have any more than 0.03% THC. Otherwise, it’s deemed marijuana. 

Because of the discrepancies in academic focus on marijuana and hemp, researchers have investigated far more of CBD’s plethora of health and wellness uses. Some of the most well-documented benefits include:

  • Providing antioxidants
  • Fighting inflammation
  • Neuroprotection

The relatively high concentration of CBD is only one reason why some consider hemp cannabis products to be the more palatable alternative to marijuana. As mentioned earlier, this Cannabis species has many other uses, ranging from making paper to clothing, milk and other food products, and even insulation. 


The cannabis plant is a dynamic species. There are three variations in the Cannabis genus, including hemp and marijuana. These are differentiated by their relative concentrations of CBD and THC. So, comparing hemp to CBD isn’t quite the right way to go about distinguishing the two from one another. 

In any case, hemp has a multitude of applications in health management, clothing production, and more. Plus, the high concentration of the cannabinoid CBD makes it preferable to marijuana in medical and political spheres. 

Jazmin Murphy
Jazmin Murphy is a trained science writer & reporter who has covered a breadth of topics. She is also a strong supporter and advocate of cannabis for recreational, wellness, and medical purposes.


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